Behavioral Design, Viruses & the Fundamental Attribution Error
March 2020

Coronavirus is THE topic at the top of everyone’s consciousness these past few weeks. It’s literally impossible to get respite from the constant coverage, and it’s definitely making us all edgier.

Let’s start with some good news – The likelihood of getting Coronavirus is quite small, and as we’re constantly being reminded, it’s really easy to reduce that risk even more by following a few simple tips.

Coronavirus and the Fundamental Attribution Error

In Thailand, at the time I’m writing this, we still have less than 200 confirmed cases distributed over a population of over 66 million. When you do the math you realize that despite the extreme levels of public anxiety we’re observing, the reality is only 0.0003% of the population are actually known to be infected.


We’re Behaviorally Designed to Suck at Numbers

As a behavioural designer, I can share that we human beings are terrible at understanding numbers – Children are normally only able to start understanding the concept of abstract numbers above the age of seven. Really big or small numbers, like those relating to the actual proportion of patients in the general population, are something most of us never develop the necessary expertise to fully comprehend. From an evolutionary perspective there’s probably very little value in being able to make these types of calculations while stalking mammoths, so naturally didn’t bother with equipping us too well with the capacity to do so. It’s actually amazing we can use the evolutionary toolkit we’ve been provided to make such calculations at all!


The Fundamental Attribution Error

The bad news is that there is however an affliction we’re all far more susceptible to, and much more likely to develop. I’m referring to The Fundamental Attribution Error.

Fundamental Attribution Error is the phenomenon we’re all familiar with wherein whenever something bad happens to other people, we tend to blame it on them, rather than their objective reality. On the flip side, when something bad happens to us we tend to blame it on bad luck rather than our own internal failings. Think about the last time someone was late to an appointment with you – You probably found yourself thinking about their poor time-management skills, and lack of consideration, but it’s most likely they were simply a victim of bad traffic.


Interestingly the opposite is true in regards to success – When others succeed we’re likely to assign their triumphs to a stroke of luck, but when we’re successful we’ll normally choose to attribute it to our skill, effort, and character.


The Fundamental Attribution Error was first identified by the social psychologist Lee Ross, a professor of humanities and sciences at Stanford University, and one of the most eminent social psychologists of the last 50 years.


The FAE and Coronavirus

You may well ask how does any of this relate to Coronavirus – I’m getting there. Bare with me a moment longer.

Coronavirus is affecting a growing number of people and families in our communities and in communities elsewhere. Whether we like it or not, the reality of Fundamental Attribution Error means that our initial and largely uncontrollable reflex is to BLAME THE VICTIMS.


Let me say this again – Our initial inclination to see others as responsible for their circumstances is a human reflex. This means that we tend to view people who have gotten Coronavirus themselves, or in their community as somehow guilty of their condition. We might even get a little angry at them.


FAE is like a fart in an elevator, it’s nasty, but it’s part of being human, and we’ve all done it…


To make things worse, in times of hardship the multicultural societies that characterize most of the world’s largest cities, Bangkok included, are especially susceptible to the more insidious facets of human behavior suggested by Realistic Conflict Theory. The short version of this thesis is that when we’re under stress, we naturally flock to those we identify as members of our “tribe”, while simultaneously developing a tendency to see members of other groups as a threat.

It’s regrettable, but not surprising, that following close on the heels of Coronavirus come the twin afflictions of stereotyping and racism – Both of which are regrettably already on display by some of those who should be leading us.


A Little Bit of Empathy goes a long way

It’s very important we acknowledge the phenomenon and behaviors i’ve just mentioned because only through awareness can we move past them to an attitude we should be having – One which is actually helpful – EMPATHY.


Instead of blaming people for not wearing a mask, or forgetting to wash their hands, wouldn’t our time be better invested in figuring out how to improve education and awareness to the small steps that we can each take that will help slow the spread of the virus? Consider this simple step taken by Woolworth’s – opening hours dedicated exclusively to seniors and the disabled – So easy to do, so smart, and so compassionate.

We all have a part to play in this, and for most of us that part doesn’t even require too much effort – It’s easy to cure ourselves of Fundamental Attribution Error and the racist behavior it fosters.

All we need is a little bit of awareness. Acknowledging that it’s natural for us to have these thoughts gives us the opportunity to move past them, change our perception and make the world just a little bit kinder.


Please keep on washing your hands, but keep your heart and mind clean as well.

Latest News